New box set Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz
& Heritage Festival
in stores tomorrow, 5/10

A five-disc box set featuring 50 live recordings from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival will be released Friday by Smithsonian Folkways right on the heels of the conclusion of the highly successful 50th edition of the iconic festival that began in New Orleans in 1970. The package has recordings dating back to 1974 and includes some of the most important artists to have emerged from New Orleans and Louisiana in the 20th century and beyond.

Let me state at the outset that this is the most impressive creation detailing the history of Jazz Fest that has ever been produced. The accompanying book, which is 136 pages long, includes essays by local writers who have been on the ground documenting the fest for decades including Keith Spera and Karen Celestan, nationally known writers including Jon Pareles, senior critic for the New York Times, and local experts including Rachel Lyons, the director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s archive.

The book is also overflowing with exclusive photographs drawn from the archives of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, the Historic New Orleans Collection, and independent photographers. Even if you are an avid collector and/or photographer of the festival, there are images contained within the book that will blow your mind.

The package itself is simply one of the best box-set presentations I have ever seen. Designed in the shape of a record album, it is a pleasure just to turn the thick pages before even diving into the writing or the music. Once you dive in, you may not come up for air for quite some time.

The 50 tunes are loosely organized based on the singular experience of walking around the Jazz Fest. None of the nationally known acts that have been part of the festival since day one—think Duke Ellington—or stars of a more recent vintage are included.

The artists are all from New Orleans or Louisiana with a few exceptions including musicians we call our own like Anders Osborne, John Mooney, and Bonnie Raitt. George Wein and the Newport Allstars get a track, which is entirely fitting since he created the festival and was the driving force in its early years.

What’s also significant is all the tunes were recorded live at the New Orleans Fairgrounds, the home of the festival since 1972, or at events connected to the festival itself. The music is culled from various sources including WWOZ radio and the Michael Murphy Productions archive.

Some of the earliest recordings are part of the Jazz & Heritage Foundation archive including songs from a benefit for Professor Longhair in 1974 that took place at the Warehouse, a legendary music venue on Tchopitoulas Street. Big Chiefs Bo Dollis and Monk Boudreaux are presented in their prime with the Wild Magnolias, backed by pianist Willie Tee’s funk band, the Gaturs.

A bootleg tape has circulated for decades featuring the same ensemble at Tulane’s McAlister Auditorium but it suffers from poor audio quality. To hear them doing “Smoke My Peace Pipe” on this box set is to hear the music as it poured forth and changed the trajectory of the black Indians of New Orleans.

A song from the same benefit concert for Professor Longhair features the man himself on a stellar version of his classic, “Big Chief.” If that’s not enough, Dr. John and members of the Meters back him.

The late, great Earl King is represented by his definitive tune, “Trick Bag,” that was also recorded the same night. All three songs give you a fly-on-the-wall perspective and make you wish you were in the room.

John Campbell, a searing blues guitarist who lit up the world during his brief moment of fame, is captured in all his glory from a set during a Jazz Fest night show in 1993 at Municipal Auditorium. Campbell was a phenom who played twice at the Fairgrounds and blues lovers are still talking about those shows, his meteoric rise, and sudden death.

I could go on and on about all the recordings on this box set including some of the latter day ones. Suffice it to say most of the musicians that have defined Jazz Fest over the years are included including Trombone Shorty, Snooks Eaglin, the Neville Brothers, Allen Toussaint, Kermit Ruffins, Buckwheat Zydeco and many more.

I’m sure every fan of the fest can point out one glaring omission, and for me it would be the Radiators. They closed the Gentilly stage for decades. The members played with many of the musicians who defined the sensibilities of the Jazz Fest in the early days including King, Longhair, Snooks Eaglin, and James Booker.

But more significantly, they have a song, “Long Hard Journey Home,” which includes these lines, “I dreamed I saw Professor Longhair/ In the heavens high above/ Smiling down on the festival/ A smile so full of love.”

Now that I got that very minor quibble off my chest, I can conclude as someone who has not missed a day at the Jazz Fest since 1982 that this is the defining document of the first 50 years. It needs to be in every New Orleans music lover’s collection as well as in the collection of anyone who appreciates any form of art in which love is the main ingredient. Big, big kudos to the many creators and contributors.

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